At first glance, David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method seems a rather stark departure from the so-called Baron of Blood’s normal fare – a restrained period piece set in turn of the 20th century Middle Europe, the film offers an intriguing dramatisation of the early days of psychoanalysis. Based on Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure (itself adapted from the non-fiction book A Most Dangerous Method by John Kerr), it centers upon a pair of turbulent and interlinked relationships; one the doomed friendship between Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his mentor, Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen), the other a torrid affair between Jung and his patient-turned-lover, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly), who became one of the first female psychoanalysts. Unsurprisingly though, Cronenberg remains true to form in his unyielding dedication to psychological undertones and inner turmoil, and manages to elevate the historical drama into a captivating and intelligent character study.
The acting – thrust into naked exposure here – is uniformly superb. Interestingly enough, perhaps the most primal performance is Knightly’s turn as the beguiling and complex Spielrein. Cleverly choosing not to overplay what might have easily descended into caricature, she brings both raw vulnerability and keen intellect to the role in a way that allows her to chart the character’s maturation from a wild-eyed hysteric to a budding physician and analyst in her own right. And while Knightly conveys Spielrein’s mental anguish more than convincingly through verbal tics and disturbing facial contortions, she never allows this to detract from a multifaceted and dynamic portrayal. Mortensen is also in fine form as the legendary father of psychoanalysis. Soft-spoken but inexorably persuasive, he paints Freud as a man of peculiar contradictions – an iconoclastic maverick grown stubborn and jaded with age, and one whose dogmatic fixation on the sex drive as the sole explanator for human behaviour leads him into conflict with the more open-minded and mystically-oriented Jung. It is Fassbender though, who, delivering an understated and pitch-perfect performance, ultimately grounds the proceedings, serving as the fulcrum on which the film’s dual plotlines balance and converge. Earnest and idealistic, his Jung undergoes a transformative arc of his own as he learns the power of the id firsthand through his mutually eye-opening extramarital relations with Spielrein, and his increasingly bitter ideological feud with Freud.
It’s a slow-paced, dialogue-heavy piece, to be sure. The narrative clicks forward methodically, and one never gets the sense that Cronenberg has anywhere to be in a hurry; rather than setting up some grand end goal, dramatic payoff or thrilling climax, he simply seems interested in meticulous characterisation and emotional beats. This certainly gives the film a rather leisurely vibe, but happily the danger of tedium is for the most part averted due to the stellar performances and carefully honed script. Moreover, the laid-back tempo gives the film a chance to really breathe, allowing Cronenberg to play with and subtly weave psychoanalytical theory into the story even as he explores the idea of the talking cure itself and its implications for human relationships.
Ironically, the only real letdown amidst the libido-fuelled drama is the piece’s own restraint, which feels almost obligatorily enforced on Cronenberg’s part due to genre conventions. While it’s hardly a universal or overly debilitating flaw, one can’t help but feel that certain moments would have more emotional heft if the film only loosened up a bit. Nonetheless, the brilliant acting on display ensures that each and every emotion at least impacts us, even if it doesn’t always penetrate quite as viscerally as it could have done.
In the end though, A Dangerous Method constitutes a fascinating film – one that, like its protagonists and the treatment they employ, melds the libidinous and the intellectual in an engaging examination of relationships and the impulses and doubts that underlie them. A well-crafted and rewarding acting tour de force, it’s a film I highly recommended.
By Gavin Elias